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Monday Scramble: Wait just a minute (or 4)

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 29, 2018, 6:30 pm

Tiger Woods returns, Jason Day prevails, J.B. Holmes stalls, Haotong Li stuns and more in this week’s redeye edition of Monday Scramble:

In the most highly anticipated debut of the new year, Tiger Woods not only made the cut at one of the most difficult regular-season stops on the PGA Tour, but he climbed into the top 25 after shooting all four rounds at par or better.

It’s just the third time he’s done that since his last victory in 2013, an encouraging sign after so little competition the past few years.

The goal was to play four rounds and test his body, and in that sense, absolutely, the week was a resounding success. But watching Woods up close last week, there is little evidence to suggest that he’s ready to be a regular contender anytime soon.

Though his short game and putting showed plenty of promise, his long game was in such disarray that he set a career-low mark for fairways hit and never found more than 12 greens per round. Other courses, including his next start at Riviera, won’t be so forgiving.

Can Woods win again?

Sure, in time, if he stays healthy and drastically tightens up his game. But for now, it’s best to keep expectations low: He plays a limited schedule on demanding courses against the top fields.

The road ahead is long. 


1. It’s best to break down Woods’ return like this:

THE POSITIVES:

He remained upright. That was a major question mark heading into the week, even after his encouraging performance in the Bahamas last month. How would Woods handle hacking out of the thick, juicy rye grass at Torrey Pines? Turns out it wasn’t a problem. At all. Despite missing 70 percent of his fairways, Woods never so much as flinched while taking a few mighty lashes out of the rough, and he felt strong enough to practice after his rounds. A great sign for his surgically repaired back.

His short game. Woods said one of the biggest misconceptions about his back injury was that he’d be able to work more on his short game than his full swing. The opposite was true, because it hurt more to bend over and address the ball while chipping and putting. That’s not the case anymore, and he clearly was sharper on and around the greens than he has been over the past few years. (The chip yips appear, at least for now, to be in remission.) That Woods took extra time during his practice rounds to hit putts and try different shots out of the rough paid off, too. Said Brandt Snedeker: “His short game is probably as good or better than I ever remember it being.”

His heart. Does Woods still have the desire and determination to compete at age 42? He offered a resounding answer last week. Even without anywhere close to his best stuff, he pulled off some incredible short-game shots and sank a few clutch putts to make the cut on the number. Shooting 2 under on the weekend, while finding just six fairways total, was a master class in grinding.

His patience. Woods might be the only one who seems content to let the process play out. Despite the chaos that constantly surrounds him, he seems happy, reenergized and at peace in his latest comeback. There is such an urgency to declare that he is back, or that he’s going to win again, but golf doesn’t lend itself to instant analysis. He acknowledges that he’s very much a work in progress, and it could take all season, or longer, before he figures it out. 

THE NEGATIVES:

His driving. There’s no way to sugarcoat: It was dreadful. He had a two-way miss, and some of his tee shots were off-the-planet bad. Woods chalked up his errant driving to his ever-evolving “feels,” but it’s clear that he needs to continue to tinker with his equipment. (He switched from the TaylorMade M2 to the M3 over the seven-week break.) His 30-percent clip was the worst of his career, and his absence of a go-to shot is worrisome moving forward.

His iron play. Woods’ driver put him in some awful spots off the tee, but even when he did find the short grass he struggled to hit the ball close enough to the hole, ranking in the middle of the pack in proximity. His wedge play was particularly poor, and only on the last day did he have good distance control with his irons. Not every tournament is going to be a grind-fest like Torrey; he needs to be able to make a lot of birdies, and he won’t with iron play like that.



2. Day desperately needed a reset in 2018.

Last year was the most difficult year of his career, not only professionally but personally. On the course, after beginning the year as the world No. 1, he plummeted outside the top 10, lost confidence in his two most important clubs (driver and putter) and split with his longtime caddie Colin Swatton, who has been a father figure to Day since he was a teenager.

He didn’t find much relief off the course, either. His mother was diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year, leading to a tearful withdrawal from the WGC-Match Play and months of listless play, and at the end of the year, his wife, Ellie, announced that she had suffered a miscarriage with the couple’s third child.

Better days are ahead.


3. Day’s inspired play at Torrey, which culminated with a birdie on the sixth playoff hole Monday to put away Alex Noren, was a reminder that he’s too talented to go months without contending. When he’s on, there isn’t a shot or moment he can’t handle.

He’ll be a force – as long as he’s healthy.

4. So … about that. Day’s back continues to be a problem.

Two weeks ago, he underwent an MRI after throwing out his back in Palm Springs. He was still in such rough shape at Torrey Pines that he withdrew from the Wednesday pro-am and didn’t think he’d be able to play. Swinging and walking around uncomfortably in the cooler temperatures, he started sluggishly with a 73, then heated up with rounds of 64-71-70. He was helped immensely by the 80-degree weather Sunday.

Day said that he’s looking into making changes in his swing to relieve some of the pressure on his lower back. When his back goes out, as it did a few weeks ago, he experiences burning pain down both legs. Not good. 

5. Still think Noren is just another flash-in-the-pan European player?

The nine-time European Tour winner recently cracked the top 10 in the world ranking, but that still didn’t convince many American golf observers that this late bloomer (he didn’t even win in three years of college golf at Oklahoma State) was the real deal.

There should be no questions now, after Noren nearly won in his first start as a Tour member. He stood tall in difficult conditions Sunday, and he only bowed out after his 3-wood on the sixth playoff hole came up short, in the water, effectively ending his chances.

Noren is known among his peers as one of the hardest workers in the game – these horrifying pictures of his calloused hands are all the proof you need – and he’s finally pushed himself to the brink of the game’s elite. 

6. What’s up with all of these playoffs? This is the third consecutive week that the Tour had a multi-hole playoff.

From 2002-17, there were two playoffs that went six or more holes. In the past three WEEKS, there have been two – Day's marathon and Patton Kizzire outlasting James Hahn on the sixth hole at the Sony Open.

The trend might not end soon, either. There has been a playoff each of the past two years at the Phoenix Open. That’s bad news for sports fans, of course, since the action bumps into the Super Bowl.



7. It’s rare to see PGA Tour players criticize their peers, but that’s exactly what happened Sunday when J.B. Holmes brought the final round to a screeching halt with his 4-minute, 10-second standoff with his caddie in the middle of the 18th fairway.

The debate centered on whether to hit 3-wood (long) or 5-wood (short), and in the end he chose a 7-iron layup in the rough, believing that his best chance to make eagle and tie was to hole a wedge shot. (Shocker: He did not.)

Yes, these guys have a lot at stake – money, world-ranking, FedExCup and Ryder Cup points – but to take four minutes making that decision, WITH THE CO-LEADER OF THE TOURNAMENT WAITING, was one of the most egregious 72nd-hole icings this scribe can remember.

8. Holmes, of course, did himself no favors afterward. Last year, when Jordan Spieth took forever to play the 13th hole at Royal Birkdale because of an unusual ruling, he apologized profusely to playing partner Matt Kuchar for the holdup. Holmes offered no such apology.

When asked whether he regretted taking that much time to make his decision and impacting Noren’s second shot, Holmes sniffed: “No, I was still trying to win.”

Already tagged as one of the game’s slowest players, Holmes’ reputation took another massive hit Sunday.  



9. Rory McIlroy’s Revenge Tour made another stop last week in Dubai, where he finished second.

It was his second week in a row in contention, though this one probably stung more than his T-3 in Abu Dhabi – on Sunday, he was two clear with eight to play, but stalled the rest of the way, allowing Haotong Li to pass him on the back nine.

“If someone had told me at the start of the year you’d finish third and second in your first two events, I would have said I’d take that,” he said afterward. “But being in the positions I’ve been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s a little difficult.

“The competitor in me is very disappointed right now. I wanted to win. I always want to win, and I just didn’t do enough when I needed to.”

McIlroy is 40 under for his first two events of the year. He will tee it up again in two weeks at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. 

10. That’s not to take anything away from Li, the 22-year Chinese star who is becoming a force on the world stage. He birdied four of his last six holes to steal the title – even more impressive considering the player he chased down.

Last year, Li surged up the leaderboard at The Open, after a final-round 63. This victory, over McIlroy, against a strong field, should boost his confidence even more. He is now No. 32 in the world.


Five days later, and we still don’t really know who was at fault in the bizarre situation that unfolded at last week’s Bahamas Great Abaco Classic.

Depending on whom you talk to, Rhein Gibson’s caddie, Brandon Davis, either did or didn’t pick up Gibson’s ball in a hazard on the 18th hole of the Web.com Tour event.

Gibson received a one-shot penalty (and lost $12,000), chucking his putter headcover at Davis and firing him on the spot.

Suspiciously, Davis went on a media blitz to share his side of the story … and then a Web.com Tour official publicly disputed that account.

Here’s what we do know: Caddies will think twice about working for Gibson, and Davis will have a hard time finding another gig.

This section was MADE for incidents like these. Seriously: WTH?

This week's award winners ... 


Trending Upward: Ryan Palmer. Winless since 2010, Palmer was the first to drop out of the playoff at Torrey Pines. Considering all he has been through recently, however – his wife, Jennifer, undergoing treatment for breast cancer, having shoulder surgery and needing to play well to keep his card via a major medical – he wasn’t about to sulk about another close call. 

Opening Stumble: LPGA season. Brittany Lincicome won the LPGA’s season opener in the Bahamas, which was reduced to 54 holes because of high winds. The 2013 edition of the event was shortened to 36 holes because of inclement weather. Paradise, we think not.

Best Of Luck: Guy who distracted Tiger. An angry mob seemed to descend on the visor-wearing dude who blurted out, “Get in the hole!” while Woods was making his backstroke on an 8-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole Sunday. Apparently there's no need for marshals when fans police each other. 


Death, Taxes and …: Charles Howell III at the Farmers. His tie for sixth at Torrey was his fourth consecutive top-20 there, and his eighth top-10 in 16 career starts. ATM. 



Didn’t See That Coming: Jon Rahm. One shot back after two rounds, on the verge of becoming world No. 1 with a victory, Rahm backed up on the weekend with rounds of 75-77, eventually finishing in a tie for 29th, behind even Tiger Woods. Now he doesn’t even have a chance to claim the top spot this week in Phoenix. 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Rickie Fowler. Maybe we should have known better, since the Farmers ambassador doesn’t have a top-60 here since 2013. Apparently, that history was more telling than his recent form, because he exited early again, with rounds of 72-72. Sigh. 

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Schauffele just fine being the underdog

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 8:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following a breakthough season during which he won twice and collected the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Award, Xander Schauffele concedes his sophomore campaign has been less than stellar, but that could all change on Sunday at The Open.

Schauffele followed a second-round 66 with a 67 on Saturday to take a share of the 9-under-par lead with Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner.

Although he hasn’t won in 2018, he did finish runner-up at The Players and tied for sixth at the U.S. Open, two of the year’s toughest tests.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“Growing up, I always hit it well and played well in tough conditions,” Schauffele said. “I wasn't the guy to shoot 61. I was the guy to shoot like 70 when it was playing really hard.”

Sunday’s pairing could make things even more challenging when he’ll head out in the day’s final tee time with Spieth, the defending champion. But being the underdog in a pairing, like he was on Saturday alongside Rory McIlroy, is not a problem.

“All the guys I've talked to said, 'Live it up while you can, fly under the radar,'” he said. “Today I played in front of what you call Rory's crowd and guys were just yelling all the time, even while he's trying to putt, and he had to step off a few times. No one was yelling at me while I was putting. So I kind of enjoy just hanging back and relaxing.”

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Open odds: Spieth 7/1 to win; Tiger, Rory 14/1

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 21, 2018, 7:54 pm

Only 18 holes remain in the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, and the man tied atop the leaderboard is the same man who captured the claret jug last year at Royal Birkdale.

So it’s little surprise that Jordan Spieth is the odds-on favorite (7/4) to win his fourth major entering Sunday’s final round.

Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, both tied with Spieth at 9 under par, are next in line at 5/1 and 11/2 respectively. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, both four shots behind the leaders, are listed at 14/1.

Click here for the leaderboard and take a look below at the odds, courtesy Jeff Sherman at golfodds.com.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Jordan Spieth: 7/4

Xander Schauffele: 5/1

Kevin Kisner: 11/2

Tiger Woods: 14/1

Francesco Molinari: 14/1

Rory McIlroy: 14/1

Kevin Chappell: 20/1

Tommy Fleetwood: 20/1

Alex Noren: 25/1

Zach Johnson: 30/1

Justin Rose: 30/1

Matt Kuchar: 40/1

Webb Simpson: 50/1

Adam Scott: 80/1

Tony Finau: 80/1

Charley Hoffman: 100/1

Austin Cook: 100/1

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Spieth stands on brink of Open repeat

By Rex HoggardJuly 21, 2018, 7:49 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Jordan Spieth described Monday’s “ceremony” to return the claret jug to the keepers of the game’s oldest championship as anything but enjoyable.

For the last 12 months the silver chalice has been a ready reminder of what he was able to overcome and accomplish in 2017 at Royal Birkdale, a beacon of hope during a year that’s been infinitely forgettable.

By comparison, the relative pillow fight this week at Carnoustie has been a welcome distraction, a happy-go-lucky stroll through a wispy field. Unlike last year’s edition, when Spieth traveled from the depths of defeat to the heights of victory within a 30-minute window, the defending champion has made this Open seem stress-free, easy even, by comparison.

But then those who remain at Carnoustie know it’s little more than a temporary sleight of hand.

As carefree as things appeared on Saturday when 13 players, including Spieth, posted rounds of 67 or lower, as tame as Carnoustie, which stands alone as The Open’s undisputed bully, has been through 54 holes there was a foreboding tension among the rank and file as they readied for a final trip around Royal Brown & Bouncy.

“This kind of southeast or east/southeast wind we had is probably the easiest wind this golf course can have, but when it goes off the left side, which I think is forecasted, that's when you start getting more into the wind versus that kind of cross downwind,” said Spieth, who is tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner at 9 under par after a 6-under 65. “It won't be the case tomorrow. It's going to be a meaty start, not to mention, obviously, the last few holes to finish.”

Carnoustie only gives so much and with winds predicted to gust to 25 mph there was a distinct feeling that playtime was over.

As melancholy as Spieth was about giving back the claret jug, and make no mistake, he wasn’t happy, not even his status among the leading contenders with a lap remaining was enough for him to ignore the sleeping giant.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


But then he’s come by his anxiousness honestly. Spieth has spent far too much time answering questions about an inexplicably balky putter the last few weeks and he hasn’t finished better than 21st since his “show” finish in April at the Masters.

After a refreshingly solid start to his week on Thursday imploded with a double bogey-bogey-par-bogey finish he appeared closer to an early ride home on Friday than he did another victory lap, but he slowly clawed his way back into the conversation as only he can with one clutch putt after the next.

“I'm playing golf for me now. I've kind of got a cleared mind. I've made a lot of progress over the year that's been kind of an off year, a building year,” said Spieth, who is bogey-free over his last 36 holes. “And I've got an opportunity to make it a very memorable one with a round, but it's not necessary for me to prove anything for any reason.”

But if an awakened Carnoustie has Spieth’s attention, the collection of would-be champions assembled around and behind him adds another layer of intrigue.

Kisner, Spieth’s housemate this week on Angus coast, has led or shared the lead after each round this week and hasn’t shown any signs of fading like he did at last year’s PGA Championship, when he started the final round with a one-stroke lead only to close with a 74 to tie for seventh place.

“I haven't played it in that much wind. So I think it's going to be a true test, and we'll get to see really who's hitting it the best and playing the best tomorrow,” said Kisner, who added a 68 to his total on Day 3.

There’s no shortage of potential party crashers, from Justin Rose at 4 under after a round-of-the-week 64 to 2015 champion Zach Johnson, who also made himself at home with Spieth and Kisner in the annual Open frat house and is at 5 under.

Rory McIlroy, who is four years removed from winning his last major championship, looked like a player poised to get off the Grand Slam schneid for much of the day, moving to 7 under with a birdie at the 15th hole, but he played the last three holes in 2 over par and is tied with Johnson at 5 under par. 

And then there’s Tiger Woods. For three magical hours the three-time Open champion played like he’d never drifted into the dark competitive hole that’s defined his last few years. Like he’d never been sidelined by an endless collection of injuries and eventually sought relief under the surgeon’s knife.

As quietly as Woods can do anything, he turned in 3 under par for the day and added two more birdies at Nos. 10 and 11. His birdie putt at the 14th hole lifted him temporarily into a share of the lead at 6 under par.

“We knew there were going to be 10, 12 guys with a chance to win on Sunday, and it's turning out to be that,” said Woods, who is four strokes off the lead. “I didn't want to be too far back if the guys got to 10 [under] today. Five [shots back] is certainly doable, and especially if we get the forecast tomorrow.”

Woods held his round of 66 together with a gritty par save at the 18th hole after hitting what he said was his only clunker of the day off the final tee.

Even that episode seemed like foreshadowing.

The 18th hole has rough, bunkers, out of bounds and a burn named Barry that weaves its way through the hole like a drunken soccer fan. It’s the Grand Slam of hazardous living and appears certain to play a leading role in Sunday’s outcome.

Perhaps none of the leading men will go full Jean Van de Velde, the star-crossed Frenchman who could still be standing in that burn if not for a rising tide back at the 1999 championship, but if the 499 yards of dusty turf is an uninvited guest, it’s a guest nonetheless.

It may not create the same joyless feelings that he had when he returned the claret jug, but given the hole’s history and Spieth’s penchant for late-inning histrionics (see Open Championship, 2017), the 18th hole is certain to produce more than a few uncomfortable moments.

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Wandering photographer costs McIlroy on 16

By Ryan LavnerJuly 21, 2018, 7:44 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy bogeyed two of his last four holes Saturday to fall four shots off the lead at The Open.

One of those mistakes might not have entirely been his fault.

McIlroy missed a short putt on the par-3 16th after a photographer was “in a world all his own,” wandering around near the green, taking photos of the crowd and not paying attention to the action on the green.


Full-field scores from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“It’s fine,” McIlroy said after a third-round 70 put him at 5-under 208, four shots off the lead. “It’s one of those things that happens. There’s a lot of people out there, and it is what it is. It’s probably my fault, but I just didn’t regroup well after it happened.”

McIlroy also bogeyed the home hole, after driving into a fairway bunker, sending his second shot right of the green and failing to get up and down.

“I putted well,” he said. “I holed out when I needed to. I just need to make the birdies and try to limit the damage tomorrow.”